This article was originally published on Pro PublicaPulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
non-partisan League of Women Voters faces nationwide backlash after decades of polling candidates, registering voters, holding debates and lobbying their interests with little fuss.
ProPublica reported in August how a shifting political climate has caught up with the league, with conservatives increasingly portraying it as an overtly liberal organization. Since this story was published, we have seen candidates decline invitations to debate and try to undermine the league’s job of registering new voters. In September in Illinois, then-Lake County Councilman Dick Barr, a Republican, publicly apologized for the Facebook post in which he referred to the league as “guerrilla witches”.
This week, the group was once again at the center of political controversy. This time it was in Florida where the governor is. Ron DeSantis sought to change a wide range of discourse, including by making it It’s easier for government officials to sue for defamation and limitation Discussing Systemic Racism in Workplace Learning. The league said it was denied permission by the Florida Department of Management Services to hold an open-air rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee. new DeSantis admin rule a requirement for bands to first obtain sponsorship from a sympathetic government agency.
The rule went into effect on March 1 and states that the requested use of space must be “consistent with the Agency’s official purposes.” Its stated purpose is to ensure that demonstrations are “conducted in a manner that protects the health and safety of the public and ensures that public servants and officials can carry out their duties.”
A department spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about the matter, stating in an email to ProPublica: “DMS regularly reviews all of its regulations to comply with Florida law. This rule has been updated as part of DMS’s annual regulatory plan to clarify procedures and requirements for public use of the Capitol.”
Taking advantage of a loophole that allows for press conferences, the league on Wednesday organized podium in the neighboring square, where he spoke publicly about what he sees as state suppression of civil rights, including freedom of speech. At one point, members of the league gagged themselves with a red ribbon, symbolizing what they say is gagging people who disagree with the government. (DeSantis’ office did not respond to a ProPublica request for comment.)
ProPublica spoke with the league’s president in Florida, attorney Cecile Schoon, about the increasingly difficult conditions the 103-year-old group in Florida faces in trying to promote civic discourse, freedom of academic thought and free access to the ballot box. Skoon called rule restricting rallies “a radical change” and said she was aware that some First Amendment groups were considering litigation. The league is already involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the DeSantis administration over the 2021 voting law. Federal Judge Overturned Several Provisions He Managed designed to discriminate against blacks lower Democratic turnout. The state has applied.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You and your members were in Tallahassee for two days to meet with legislators and attend committee hearings and see the government in action. What was the purpose of the rally you planned to hold and what happened?
We have a lot of new members, and we want to introduce them to all the different tools we have to hold banners, get excited, and get informed by my announcements as president and our allies. This is what we like to do.
And then we asked for any other place and were told that we had to find an agency that sponsored the paperwork and basically authenticated everything we were trying to do and our application had to be in line with that agency’s policy. And it didn’t make any sense, because sometimes you want to complain about the government itself, you want to say, “Hey, you can do better here, please think about this and that.”
Do you think this is part of a wider backlash against the league?
It’s hard to know what’s on their minds. But when you say you need to get permission from a government agency, and we’ve been known to criticize and sue the governor and government agencies, you must think they were looking at us and other like-minded civic groups. You must believe it. Because why do they require you to get someone to agree with you first?
What does this mean for your organization?
Oh, it’s very harmful. The League doesn’t expect everyone to agree with us. We are very capable and open and welcome debate and different points of view. It’s not a problem. Let the citizens decide what they want to do and what to believe and who they want to vote for, but when you also take books from library shelves, when you also threaten teachers if they want to have academic freedom – K-12 and now universities are very similar to some other government regimes that wanted to prevent citizens from even getting information about what was going on.
How is the league changing? It is my understanding that you recently hosted a successful public forum in Sarasota on school choice, where views from across the political spectrum were represented.
We have received a lot of positive feedback from all sides. We’re going to have more community discussions. Again, we are not going to be silent. We can’t shut our mouths. We’re going to create opportunities. We continue to double our work with many organizations that want more free speech and support these fundamental American values. This morning, nine of my members attended a conference and prayer breakfast hosted by pastors for Florida children. … There were representatives of the Islamic faith, Christians, representatives of different faiths, there were representatives of the Jews and many public organizations. And we all plan to work together to make sure everyone feels safe and can be heard. People are outraged, they are upset and they just want fundamental American values back. So it’s not just organizations with voting rights.
Do you see a connection between the demonstration rule and the more well-known efforts of the DeSantis administration, such as the so-called Don’t Say Gay Act (which restricts class discussion on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity)?
This includes a very similar message, basically to what many organizations say: “You are not allowed to say X or Y in their classes, you have no right to keep these books in your library for anyone.” So there is a lot of horror and a lot of fear.